At the centre of Noah Hawley’s novel Before the Fall is a plane crash — a private plane crash, which, within the first few pages, has killed nine people, leaving two survivors. The crash happens so swiftly that the rest of the novel is spent trying to unravel what happened — and why — through flashbacks that explore the lives of the passengers and crew.
Scott Burroughs, a troubled and struggling painter “of catastrophe”, is the one passenger who seems out of place on the private flight from Martha’s Vineyard to New York. He has been invited by Maggie, a casual acquaintance whose wealthy and powerful husband David has organised the flight. Also on board are David and Maggie’s young children, their good friends, a bodyguard and three crew.
We soon learn that Scott survives the crash and, in fact, becomes a hero after swimming to shore with another less-able passenger. His heroism is soon questioned, however, once the investigation into the crash begins and once the media begin to ponder why a has-been artist was on board a private flight with the super-wealthy. He does have one apparent ally, though, in the form of Gus Franklin from the National Transportation Safety Board, who is trying to establish whether the crash was indeed an accident or, for example, an act of terrorism.
Hawley intersperses Scott’s post-crash experiences with the back-stories and political intrigues of the other passengers and the result is a languorous, sad and beautifully told story. Scott’s career as an artist — particularly one who paints disaster scenes from the news — is not without relevance to the story and the “intersection between life and art” is central to the novel. Scott compares the mystery to an apparently blank canvas, explaining that, “the naked eye alone will never be able to uncover the story” but if you run your hand over it, “the topographic truth” will seep through.
Before the Fall is a slow-burner and the ending is not quite as satisfying as I was hoping, given the set-up but the conceit and its execution are both very effective in Hawley’s skilled hands. Before the Fall is an engaging mystery and a great summer read — although perhaps not if you are a nervous flyer!
Disclaimer: Before the Fall will be published by Grand Central Publishing on 31 May 2016. I received a pre-release copy via NetGalley. All opinions are my own.